Full beam ahead

Nicky Churchill looks at the approach taken by lighting specialists on two recent permanent exhibitions in central London

Interior lighting design at its best is a creative response to an architectural space, whether that be a period building or a contemporary interior. And if done properly, it will define the purpose of that space, subtly or forcefully. Here we look at two environments, both in central London, where lighting has been used in harmony with the spirit of the interior – the bright lights of RTKL’s Trocadero leisure extravaganza in Piccadilly and the subtle accented lighting of Piers Gough’s National Portrait Gallery.

Light and Entertainment

In the entertainment world, real impact is achieved through the use of neon lighting, something which is a bit of an unknown quantity among designers. This may be because they do not really understand what it is, and as a result are not quite sure how to use it, but it’s more probably due to its association with garish Las Vegas type lighting. To give it its full definition, neon is a generic term for a cold cathode tube, typically glass, which is then filled with neon gas. When lit, it becomes bright red, although many other colours can be made by coating the inside of the tube. Neon is commonly used as a direct substitute for the fluorescent tube and although it is up to four times as expensive, it offers many advantages that outweigh the initial cost. It has an extremely long life (up to ten years), can be bent into any shape simply by moulding the glass tube, and requires little or no maintenance. It is therefore perfect for areas where access is a problem.

Signage is one of the more common applications for neon, and many of the signage manufacturers have their own in-house glass works. But it really comes into its own as feature lighting, a recent example being the new Trocadero leisure extravaganza, unveiled to the public in September. Conceived by architect RTKL and its entertainment division, ID8, working alongside lighting consultant Jonathan Speirs & Associates, the psychedelic experience starts as soon as the visitor enters the atrium space, and is confronted by twin 25-metre-high “telecommunications” towers housing an array of light fittings, from strobe and flood to flexi-flash and neon. These are all programmed to blind the punter with light, colour and noise. Between these towers, a central escalator or “rocket shot” enveloped in flashing blue neon hoops whisks you up to the action, past a 108-screen video wall. Underneath the escalators, Speirs has introduced a strip of orange crackle neon, a technique which uses broken glass within the tube to obstruct the arc as it tries to reach the electrodes at each end. All this high-tech entertainment demands a large budget, and the client was generous on this project. But the design team has not gone overboard, integrating cost-effective and equally colourful fluorescent tube into the ceiling grids and the recesses under the balustrading where access is easier.

The Trocadero installation is undoubtedly an extreme use of neon lighting, and there are less obvious applications. Signage has already been mentioned, but it is equally suited to recessed accent lighting in awkward, inaccessible places – as long as your client has the budget.

Light and Art

Lighting is one of the more complex issues facing the architect of a new museum or gallery, the key being the fine balance between conservation and illumination. On the one hand, the often age-old exhibits need to be protected from over-exposure to light, while on the other, the visitors need to be able to view the exhibits in comfort. There is no doubt that light can destroy, but as Janet Turner of Concord Lighting says, it is “fundamental to the appreciation of art”.

Depending on the type and size of exhibit, each installation will have its own requirements – some will demand dramatic and theatrical lighting while others will require the subtle and soft approach. But two things stand out when designing for museums and galleries – the control of the artificial light is important and the lighting installation itself should be flexible to cope with ever-changing exhibits.

Track systems and directional spotlights are an obvious solution for this environment, and one that has been implemented at the newly opened Victorian and Early Twentieth Century Galleries at the National Portrait Gallery, designed by Piers Gough of CZWG Architects. What Gough did was strip away the partitions to reveal the nineteenth century interiors, uncover the windows to introduce daylight and install angled picture hangings and glass walls into the display spaces, all of which had direct implications for the lighting scheme. That fell to Concord Sylvania, which was brought in early in the project to advise and subsequently supply the fittings.

Throughout the new galleries, sculpture has been combined with art, nowhere more evident than in the long central corridor. Here PAR 38 Control Spots have been used to focus both on the white marble busts and the artwork, livening up what could have been a dark, claustrophobic space. But the most striking area is the main Duveen gallery, with its sinuous curved ceiling and double-sided glass walls adorned with historic paintings. (Nobody seems to mind that you can also see the back of the paintings.) Sculpted heads mounted on to curved steel pedestals adjoin one end of each wall. This transparent display area is lit from above by track lighting integrated into the ceiling. Low voltage Expostar fittings with framing projectors have been used to focus the light directly on to the individual picture frames, thus avoiding glare passing through the glass walls and reflections bouncing back from the glass face. Around the perimeter of the gallery, Expostar fittings with various filters and lenses have been used to give a soft wash.

Over the years, Concord Sylvania has worked on museums and galleries worldwide and has now introduced a new range of controllable electronic spotlights particularly for this application. Torus is a compact range that comes with a range of reflectors and lens accessories, the most innovative of which is a specialist lens for accenting narrow objects. This compresses the beam to a narrow slot of light that can be turned through 360 degrees to suit the orientation of the display. I am told it is a first, so it will be interesting to see how successful it is.

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